Will Hutton and Eve Poole's new books are arrogant left-wing tomes

These two polemicists of the left share the same self-satisfied worldview, although Hutton is acute about the digital revolution, says Chris Deerin

by Chris Deerin
Last Updated: 28 May 2015

Be in no doubt: Will Hutton is very, very disappointed in you. You've let yourself down, you've let your country down, and - worst of all - you've let Will down.

It's quite simple. Hutton told us 20 years ago what we needed to do to create a Britain that he'd consider up to snuff, when he published The State We're In - 'what many were looking for', he modestly avers. He told us again in 1997, with The State To Come, and in 2002, realising the wider planet wasn't quite as he'd like it, gave us The World We're In. One might be tempted to suggest a certain lack of imagination when it comes to book titles, but to be fair his latest, How Good We Can Be, diverges daringly, some might even say recklessly, from the pattern. Sort of. The first chapter is called The State We Shouldn't Be In.

Hutton is now 65 and principal of a venerable Oxford college, but age has not mellowed him. Far from it. Indeed, his attempt to write a serious book of political economy is rather undermined by, one, the petted lip he maintains throughout and, two, his abuse of those who have the temerity to disagree with him. 'Libertarian know-nothings', 'neoliberal apologists', 'conservative apologists', 'centre-right prejudices' - the effect is a little like standing next to one of those radical socialists who man town-centre stalls at weekends, semi-decipherably bellowing the creed through a wonky megaphone. Dave Spart with a thesaurus.

This is a pity, because there are aspects of the book that are rather inspiring. Hutton is, as the title suggests, big on optimism, which is not always the case with the left. Although Britain is, he (of course) argues, 'becoming the laboratory for a libertarian, anti-social justice experiment' due to 'the failings and growing illegitimacy of the current regime', it could yet be 'one of the best countries in the world'.

His analysis of the opportunities being opened up by the digital revolution is sharp, detailed and compelling, and by far the best section of the book. Hutton believes we are 'living through an economic inflection point like no other. What lies ahead will be more transformative than anything humanity has lived through so far... digitisation remakes the compass of our understanding and invents new frontiers of possibility, and in so doing promises to refashion the economics of almost everything.'

Hutton quickly returns to bashing the bad guys, however, and from here on in How Good We Can Be becomes predictable. He calls for the 'renewal of the public domain', for devolution of power and for the economy to put 'justice' at its heart. One might argue that in each case the centre-right has been the more active - both in thinking and doing. Nonetheless, Hutton devotes one last chunk to saying, again, how ghastly he finds the Conservative Party, and that Britain can only be saved by a combination of a reformed Labour party and, erm, the Greens.

This doesn't go far enough for Eve Poole, who in Capitalism's Toxic Assumptions, challenges the 'seven deadly sins' of market economics: competition, Adam Smith's 'invisible hand', utility, agency theory, pricing, shareholder value and limited liability.

She, like Hutton, believes the very basis of our economic thinking and the structure of our companies need to change. She's keen on female chief executives - apparently 'the male physiology supports a tendency to compete... which may produce suboptimal outcomes'. She argues for elected deputy chief executives, stakeholder boards and for main-board meetings to be broadcast live, with staff encouraged to ask questions. It all sounds like a day at the Guardian.

What neither author acknowledges, or is perhaps even capable of understanding due to the blinkers imposed by their own bias, is that the centre-right is every bit as engaged in this post-crash rethinking of capitalism and has just as clear a grasp of the need for a renewal of the contract between capital and society. The arrogance and self-ascribed moral superiority of the left's worldview is on full display in both books.

'It may very well be that the analysis and proposals I present here gain no more leverage in the next 20 years than they did in the last,' writes Hutton, huffily. 'In that case I have no doubt the UK will break up... and that at some stage there will be a revolt from below.' The warning is as chilling as it is clear: if we continue to insist on ignoring him, he'll write another book.

How Good We Can Be by Will Hutton, Little Brown, £16.99

Capitalism's Toxic Assumptions by Eve Poole, Bloomsbury Publishing, £25

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